What is Cloud Computing?

finger pointing at cloud services dashboard

The marketing term “Cloud” appended to a service has become overused and no longer holds a coherent meaning.  We’ll try to help you see through the cloud to learn what the hype has been obscuring.

A Cloudy Definition

Ask five people what Cloud Computing or a Cloud Service is and you will get five different answers.  From a marketing perspective, this may be a desired and beneficial result as all kinds of services can ride on the coattails of the Cloud wave.  But from a technical delivery aspect, this becomes challenging as everyone’s expectations vary so widely.

The Original Definition

Originally, Cloud Computing referred to distributed computation.  Processes were distributed among several different machines.  As the size of the cloud grew or shrank, the computational strength grew or shrank.  These were also very redundant solutions as a failure of a node, or several nodes within the cloud barely affected the overall capacity of the system.  They were self-healing systems that worked around issues or failures. To a smaller degree, several services operated in a very similar fashion.

Companies such as email filtering services would have servers distributed among several data centers around the world.  If a single node in a data center failed, redundant machines on-site would take up the slack.  If the entire site failed, traffic was rerouted to one of the other data centers.  From the end client’s perspective, they did not know, nor did they need to know this background architecture.  They just understood that almost 100% of the time, their email was being scrubbed and delivered to their mailbox.

Cloud Solutions

Now we have solutions such as Cloud Storage and Cloud Servers.  From the end user’s perspective, the data is sent somewhere into the cloud.  It is ,always there, always available.  Failures of infrastructure at the hosting facility are rarely even noticed (think of iTunes or Google Play store).

With storage services, the data is usually sent to a primary data center onto a very expensive, highly redundant storage system.  Often the data is replicated to a second site and maybe a third.  Would two or three points qualify as Cloud?  We believe it depends upon your perspective.  We do not intend to change people’s opinion on what is or is not a Cloud solution, but rather to get people to ask what is behind the term Cloud.

Common Misconceptions

Several clients have stated that they believe a Cloud Server will be automatically upgraded to the latest software and hardware as new technologies become available.  The reality is that the Cloud server is a virtual machine being hosted on a cluster of servers setup within a performance tier.  Many of the providers will create performance tiers within their solution based upon the amount of RAM, disk storage and CPUs.

Levels of Cloudiness

We’ll use the tiers Gold, Silver and Bronze for this discussion.

Some of the providers will put your virtual machine on a Bronze tier by default to keep the price down.  When digging to find out why a database function is so slow, you may find out that the Bronze tier is actually using 4 year old technology.

A step up to the Silver plan is generally a move to a different cluster of hardware with faster processors and faster disks.  But as the technology ages, and new hardware starts working its way into the facility, the provider will often create a new tier to help offset the expense of the new equipment.  So we now have a Platinum tier.

Some providers may roll the older equipment down; so what was the Gold tier is now the Silver tier.  But the customer should check to make sure their virtual machines get moved to that equipment.  Additionally, many of these clusters are in a single facility.  If there is an environmental issue at the facility, their virtual machines are often not accessible.  Redundancy to another facility is often an additional up-sell.  Again, would you classify this as Cloud?

Is the Cloud Cheaper?

Another misconception that we often hear is that the Cloud is cheaper.  This is often a stretch and is highly dependent upon your perspective.

The Cloud providers often have very expensive specifically constructed data centers with UPS, redundant cooling, generators, redundant internet connections and a whole staff of people to watch over it 24×7.  From the perspective of a business trying to recreate this type of environment on a smaller scale, it can be a less expensive solution to outsource this business.  But for the business that has only a couple of servers that are in the accountant’s closet, or even a small computer room with a dozen servers and virtual machines, it will most likely not be a less expensive proposition.

When you talk to these providers, ask them if any of their clients ever shrink in the amount of services or reoccurring costs.  The answer will be “No”.  Whatever entry point a company gets into a cloud service, they will always grow.  The finance guys should always expect these costs to go up.  Always.

Some will argue that the savings will come from the reduction of in-house staff or IT services; the provider will take care of all the issues.  I can hear the salesperson saying “We’ll take care of any issue that come up.”  The rest of the sentence should be “…on our side of the fence.”

Red flags should come up anytime a person says they will take care of any or all issues.  There is always a defining line between what they cover and what they will not cover.  Just speak to an insurance agent about a tree limb that fell on your car to illustrate the point.  Often the hosting providers will make sure the systems are up and running.  They may troubleshoot the OS to make sure it is running properly and patched up.  But if you have a functional problem such as remote printing, they often will not touch the issue.  They are often not staffed to handle these types of issues.  If a user has a problem with their PC not connecting to the server, the provider will often just check the server and leave the PC connectivity issue up to the client.

Please do not misinterpret this as providers lie and are unable to support their solutions.  Most do a very good job of keeping their environment up and accessible to three or four nines.  The people who work there are very dedicated to providing a valuable service to their customers.  We would just caution the consumer on understanding where the line of responsibility is and have it in writing.  The time to find where that line of responsibility is not when your entire business is out of commission and you are on the phone with a support desk engineer that asks how to spell your company name.

Are Cloud Services Right For Your Business?

Are there good Cloud solutions out there?  Yes, and we recommend them daily.

At Entec Systems, we want to make sure the consumer understands what the Cloud service is, what the Cloud service can do, and probably most importantly, what it cannot do.  Through an understanding of what is truly being delivered, the consumer can make a true assessment on value.  Otherwise the value is obscured and perception is built upon inferences.

Are Cloud Services right for your business? Please contact us and we’ll be happy to determine the proper solution for your specific needs.